Laughter Therapy: Health Benefits of Laughter
This Is Your Brain On Laughter
A couple of years ago, my wife and I were visiting her mother, Mimi, who is now 90 years old. Mimi was demonstrating her remarkable memory for names by identifying everyone in her high school yearbook from many decades ago. When she was done, Mimi turned to my wife and said, "Well, that was fun, but I guess you and...what's his name...will have to be going now."
The story is now a comic standard in my family, and the first one I thought of when preparing this column. Like most funny anecdotes, the Mimi story has elements of surprise, tension, and resolution leading to laughter. But here's what you may not know: Humor is not just a silly diversion. It also yields important neuropsychological benefits—improving your mood, exercising your brain, masking pain, even strengthening your bonds with those who share a good chuckle with you.
What happens in your brain in response to a sidesplitting bon mot? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at the University College London Institute of Neurology found that as study subjects tried to understand verbal jokes, areas of their brains important to learning and understanding were activated. This means that as your brain wrestles with the meaning of a clever punch line, it's getting the same kind of workout it would from a brainteaser.
A good knee-slapper also produces a chemical reaction that instantly elevates your mood, reduces pain and stress, and boosts immunity (suppressed by both stress and pain). A recent fMRI study by Allan L. Reiss, MD, and colleagues at Stanford University traced this activity to a region called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), which rewards behaviors such as feeding and sex (and laughing) by releasing dopamine, a natural opiate.
Laughter promotes good health in another way, too—by strengthening connections. We use laughter to deflect anger and aggression and to communicate goodwill. In fact, a good sense of humor is consistently rated by women as among the most desirable attributes of a potential partner.
Here are some ways you can reap the benefits of humor every day:
Keep an eye out for the unexpectedly silly side of daily life to combat negative thoughts.For example, at the end of a recent worry-filled day, I turned on a news channel that referred to its meteorologists as "the Weather Team That Tells the Truth." I thought the implication that other weather teams lie was hilarious. I laughed and immediately felt my worries melt away.
Make sure you don't go to bed stressed-out—keep your evening entertainment light by reading a comic novel or watching a funny show.My wife and I were latecomers toSeinfeld, so we purchased DVDs of the early seasons, which we now watch at night.
Reframe unpleasant situations with humor.For example, I once heard a flight attendant deal with a surly, complaining passenger by saying: "You know, Sir, on every flight I try to pick one passenger and ignore him or treat him poorly. Today, you are the passenger I chose." The result was laughter by both parties.
Thomas Crook, PhD, a clinical psychologist, has conducted extensive research to improve our understanding of how the brain works. He is a former research program director at the National Institute of Mental Health and is CEO of Cognitive Research Corp. in St. Petersburg, FL.
Video: The Health Benefits of Laughter
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